Boxing: Harrison fights his corner in support of boxers' rights

Mike Rowbottom meets a man who wants to win an Olympic gold medal before he considers joining the ranks of the professionals
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The Independent Online
AUDLEY HARRISON is concerned about big structures. Hardly a small structure himself at 6ft 6in and 18 stone, Britain's blazing hope for a boxing gold at the next Olympics is troubled by the nature of large organisations, and the apparent inevitability of bureaucracy within sporting administrations.

Unusual concerns, perhaps, for your average boxer. But that is a bill the recently installed Commonwealth super-heavyweight champion emphatically does not fit.

His anxieties about administration have been focused by the task upon which he is currently engaged as part of a sports science degree course at Brunel University - a 10,000-word thesis on the state of amateur boxing within Britain.

"Boxing is not run along proper business lines," he says. "There needs to be more accountability and a more clearly defined role.

"Organisations get too big for most members to comprehend, and the reality is that they are then run by a clique. The European Commission and the International Olympic Committee have the same problem.

"Since the Olympics started making money in 1984 it has blown the minds of the IOC members because they haven't had any system in place to deal with it. Unless you have got a good management structure, it doesn't work." Harrison is not backward in coming forward with his criticisms of the Amateur Boxing Association, whose champion he has been for the last two years. Not surprisingly, he has made himself extremely unpopular in some quarters.

"My attitude is different to the majority of people in boxing. A lot of people look at me as quite eccentric and exuberant. I get the respect of the boxers because I back it all up in the ring, but I have a lot of problems with the administrators.

"I've been going public on a lot of things they would like to keep under the carpet. The majority of amateur boxers in this country have been shackled into training regimes before big championships, and then simply thrown in at the deep end. And people are surprised when they don't perform.

"You have got to be allowed to express yourself, and to think for yourself.."

He added: "We boxers are the most important people in the sport. But in the culture of boxing, we are the least important people in the sport. That ain't happening no more."

Harrison has done his best to improve the lot of the average fighter by forming the Amateur Boxing Union of England. The stated aim is to raise boxers' profiles and allow them to contribute more directly to the sport.

But the new body, which has around 30 members, including many of Britain's champions, is meeting with resistance.

"Since I formed the union I have been blocked from every angle," said Harrison, whose dissatisfaction with the domestic association was exacerbated by the failure to secure further National Lottery funding last November.

The ABA bid was bounced back by the Lottery Distribution Board, which asked for a number of improvements to be made. Harrison raised a petition of more than 2,000 signatures protesting against the financial hold-up, and presented it to the Sports Minister, Tony Banks, last November.

"I said to Tony Banks that, if he liked boxing, as I'd heard, he should not be allowed to let this happen. We are going for gold at the Olympics, and we should be funded asap. Otherwise there will be people thinking of turning professional, and that would be an absolute scandal for amateur boxing."

At the age of 27, Harrison has resisted the siren call of the professional game in order to follow his own agenda. Six months ago, when he required just 36 seconds, and one devastating punch, to win the Commonwealth Games title in Kuala Lumpur, the eyeballs of a number of boxing promoters began to spin with dollar signs. Harrison says that he was tempted with several offers to turn professional, the largest of which guaranteed him earnings of pounds 100,000 within his first year.

For a man whose current funding takes the form of a pounds 725-a-month scholarship from the British Olympic Association, that was a lot of cash to turn down. Harrison, however, is looking at the bigger picture. "If I can win the Olympic title in Sydney, that money will be two or three times as much," he said. "Officials can't do anything to promote the sport. But if I go to the Olympic Games next year and win, it will be a massive boost for the amateur sport."

Harrison, who moved into boxing when he was 16, after shattering an ankle while playing football, is ranked No 8 in the world, with a fight record of 34 wins and six losses.

If he can secure Britain's first Olympic boxing gold since Chris Finnegan won in 1968, he believes it can also springboard him up the professional rankings in the steps of other Olympic champions such as Lennox Lewis and his early role model, Muhammad Ali.

At 28 he will be leaving it late to make his mark in the professional realm. But he is sanguine about his prospects. "I want to reach the top of the amateur pile before switching," he said. "I'm not motivated by money.

"But I've always been very ambitious. I have always been interested in glory, in re-writing the record books."

As part of his Olympic preparation, he will travel to Lanzarote next month for an international tournament. Harrison will not fight himself - he is recovering from a hernia operation - but he will video a number of his Sydney rivals.

"I prepare diligently for everything," he said. "I talk only when I know I can back it up. I want Olympic gold and I know what I have to do to take it.

"I want to beat a drum everyone wants to hear."